In Florence, a widow, her daughter Diana, and a woman named Mariana discuss the feats of Bertram, who has “done most honorable service” in battle. The widow says that Parolles has tried to woo Diana on Bertram’s behalf, and Mariana warns Diana to be careful with Bertram and to protect her modesty. Diana says that she has no intentions of giving into Bertram’s advances.
Bertram has displayed manly courage in battle, but is also devoting much of his time to wooing Diana—he is not the “hater of love” he promised the duke he would be. Diana values her virginity and assumes a traditionally female role in defending her modesty against male advances.
Helen enters, and the widow says that she will let this pilgrim stay at her house for a night. She speaks with Helen and learns that she has come from France. She says that a Frenchman has “done worthy service” here in Italy, and asks if Helen knows of the count of Rossillion. Helen says she only knows of his noble reputation. Diana says that the count has been married “against his liking,” and that his man Parolles speaks poorly of this wife.
Helen deceives the widow at first, pretending to be someone else. Helen claims that she has heard of Bertram’s noble reputation and Diana speaks of Helen’s poor reputation (via what she has heard from Parolles), but these reputations do not match up very accurately to the characters’ actual natures.
Helen says that she believes Parolles’ assessment of the wife’s character and says the wife is “too mean / To have her name repeated.” Helen learns from the widow that Bertram has been courting Diana, but that Diana “is armed for him and keeps her guard / In honestest defense.” Just then, the army goes marching by, including Bertram and Parolles. Diana says she wishes Bertram were “honester,” because he is a “handsome gentleman.”
Still tricking the widow, Helen ironically pretends to agree with Parolles' false assessment of her own character, showing how false such reputations and rumors can be. Diana’s defense against Bertram’s advances is compared to a military defense, blurring the distinction between supposedly proper male and female activities.
Pointing out Parolles—whom she calls “that jackanapes with scarves”—Diana says that he is leading Bertram astray. The troops pass by, and the widow tells Helen to follow her to her house for the night. Helen thanks her, and asks for Diana to accompany them at dinner.
Diana seems to see through Parolles’ bragging and posturing immediately. The idea that Parolles is a bad influence on Bertram may suggest that Bertram’s character is changeable and not entirely innate or fixed.